The Underdog: February 2015
While reflecting on February, it becomes apparent that there were relatively few notable albums released this month. The same effect was felt in the underground and DIY music community: there’s definitely a bit less new material than usual to report on for this edition of The Underdog. That said, the quality of the lesser-known music released this month is quite strong. Among February’s best off-the-radar releases are an impressive third album by a yelping, quivering Boston trio; a stomping revamp of classic rock styles courtesy of some Philadelphia teenagers’ considerable début; and an even younger group of Barcelona kids’ harrowing, minimal post-punk thesis. These are albums that immediately strike the ear, yet, for some reason, features on blogs as frequently traversed as Pitchfork and Consequence of Sound don’t seem to being doing much to expand these groups’ fan bases. Hopefully, The Underdog can help to change that.
Adventures – Supersonic Home
A commenter on Supersonic Home‘s listing on excellent DIY label Run For Cover Records’ Bandcamp describes it as “the best 90s ‘revival’ record thus far.” Indeed, Adventures are the latest in a string of underground groups looking back on the 90s for inspiration, and their fans tend to see them as the best at their craft. To praise them so highly is to paint with broad strokes, but it’s undeniable that they’ve got a genuine charm and a great sound. The ecstatic guitars and eager vocal harmonies of exuberant punk album opener “Dream-Blue Haze” immediately declare Adventures’ influences, talents, and resonance; later tracks such as “My Marble Home” and “Long Hair” tread on more dejected 90s motifs with equal amounts of allure and poignancy. But even at their most defeated, Adventures still smile through these ten enjoyable alt pop songs. “I feel happy,” another commenter declared on the Supersonic Home Bandcamp listing when describing this album; indeed, it’s hard not to enjoy these unpretentious tunes.
Breakfast in Fur – Flyaway Garden
A good number of the albums that frequently rank highly on best-of lists find themselves so well-regarded due to their blatant influence on later acts. Is This It, Late Registration, Daydream Nation, Sgt. Pepper’s – these are all albums you might see on such lists, and ones that each have many obvious followers. Another album somewhat commonly listed alongside these names is Broken Social Scene’s 2002 record You Forgot It In People, but unlike the other records named here, People‘s influence isn’t nearly as transparent. No one has really taken that album’s sound and run with it – well, not until Breakfast in Fur offered an intensely beautiful, instantly striking revamp of it this month. Flyaway Garden occupies the same gauzy, ethereal blur as does Broken Social Scene’s breakout work; its welcoming acoustic guitars, snug synthetic ambience, and effervescent, breezy vocals all recall the best of BSS. “Portrait” would feel right at home on any of their albums, as might “Episode” or “Whisper.” But to only copy an already adored work would be boring; no, instead, Breakfast in Fur infiltrate their music with further influences from shoegaze (think Mazzy Star and Isn’t Anything) and neo-psychedelic sounds like those popularized by Animal Collective. Their diverse drawing board results in memorable numbers such as the Neil Young cover “Cripple Creek Ferry” and the breathtaking blast of unexpectedly hooky opener “Shape”, arguably one of the year’s finest songs thus far. Brewing distinct musical predecessors into a new, invigorating drink is an underrated talent, but on Flyaway Garden, Breakfast in Fur do so with ease.
Dirty Dishes – Guilty
Dirty Dishes are signed to a label called Exploding in Sound for a reason (which, by the way, is one of the most consistently strong DIY labels out there right now, as further evidenced by the Krill album that you can read about below). Their newest album explodes forward the moment it begins, with a feedback ring giving way to a slab of wailing guitars. Vocalist Jenny Tulite then lays down restrained vocals that are very clearly set to blow at any given moment; indeed, opener “Come Again” testifies that Dirty Dishes are more than capable of Exploding in Sound. “Red Roulette” and “Guilty” follow in both succession and ear-stabbing sound, but thereafter, things gradually diminish into more starry-eyed, dimly lit territory. “Androgynous Love Song” builds a bridge between the seething havoc of the album’s first third and it’s almost folky remainder. It’s impressive that a dusky, minimal dirge such as “Lackluster” can find a stable home on the same collection as “Red Roulette”, but Dirty Dishes resonate in both modes. If they sound this great already, one can only imagine what they might be able to pull off if they choose to go in only one direction on their next effort. It’ll be worth sticking around for, providing all the more reason to fall in love with Guilty.
The Districts – A Flourish and a Spoil
Groove and catchiness: two musical qualities you’d have to be truly pretentious to deny. Philadelphia rockers The Districts, who are roughly twenty years old, have both in spades. After their début EP made waves early last year, Fat Possum Records brought them aboard for an inauguration that satisfies eager, excited fans’ greatest hopes and desires. Heavily overdriven guitars that play bluesy chord progressions dominate this record, as does a generally gruff, energetic tone. “Heavy Begs” finds the band pounding away fiercely on its drums as heavily processed vocals seethe and croon in harmony with layers of incisive guitar work; “Hounds” digs deep into the blues rock well towards an intense final climax; “Young Blood” swells from an overwhelmingly brazen guitar attack into a somehow more inundating force of throaty shouting and guitar work that sends sparks flying over nine equally enjoyable minutes. And even though these songs are clearly incredible, they somehow all pale in comparison to album opener “4th and Roebling”, a supercharged stomper that contains one of the stickiest, most direct choruses in blues rock history. Actually, this is a chorus so massive that it leaves the boundaries of blues rock; there’s no clear definition of what The Districts’ sound is, but its traces of blues, rock n’ roll, and classic rock influences result in a product that’s as cerebral as it is corporeal.
Ex-Cult – Cigarette Machine EP
When everyone else around you is a punk, you better have a lot of guts and brawn if you want to excite your listeners. Ex-Cult are aware of their surroundings, offering up some of the most refreshingly visceral punk music of recent times. Similarly to the better known punk act Parquet Courts, Ex-Cult infuse their sound with references to both classic punk tropes and an almost krautrock-like sense of minimalism, repetition, and rhythm. The irreverence and nearly unsung manner of Cigarette Machine‘s vocals reaches back to Black Flag, while the simple rhythms and omnipresent riffage might feel at home among the earliest kraut achievements. Anyone who enjoys lacerating guitar work, intentionally low production quality, and sneering vocals is bound to feel revitalized after hearing Cigarette Machine, and it’s likely that the EP’s creators feel the same rush when performing these songs.
Krill – A Distant Fist Unclenching
It’s not uncommon to see or hear Krill fans compared to a cult. This Boston trio’s following may be relatively small, but it’s almost as strong as their mighty songs are. The heft and relatable weirdness of their tunes’ wry, paranoid musings, wiry, unhinged vocals, sharp, incisive guitar work, and thunderous, pointed percussion matches the fervor and lovable oddity of their devoted listeners. In fact, the former probably directly causes the latter. It only makes sense that a band singing about visiting someone at work only to almost involuntarily begin fantasizing about their shirtless body might generate an enthusiastic response among a small sect of people. This story is merely one of many idiosyncratic, hilarious tales on A Distant Fist Unclenching, Krill’s third and best album to date. Other scenarios include a popular villager killed by a tiger, an apology to a roadkill victim’s family (in Krill’s universe, animals have distinct family structures), and an ostensibly much sadder story of family turmoil. Although only the last of these themes may seem relatable on paper, the alerted, frayed state in which frontman Jonah Furman delivers his lyrics matches the mood and pacing of his band’s music so precisely that listeners’ catharsis is absolutely guaranteed. Krill can turn an interwoven BDSM and self-discovery tale into an allegory for emotions that everyone feels, thanks in no small part to their highly memorable cocktail of post-punk urgency. A Distant Fist Unclenching is truly unforgettable, ensuring that the band’s most famous declaration (and their fan base’s unofficial slogan) remains true: “Krill, Krill, Krill forever!”
Mourn – Mourn
There are two cases to make that this group of Barcelona-based 18-year old punks’ (and one 15 year old!) début album was actually released last year rather than just now. The first is its original release in native Spain early last year; the second is American label Captured Tracks’ digital-only American reissue last October. But only now has Captured Tracks made physical formats available for Mourn in the US, fully marking its impact on American ears. Yet even despite a first-billing review on Pitchfork, Mourn’s reach remains limited. They don’t quite yet have eight thousand likes on Facebook, which is surprising given how stark and immediate their songs are. Across ten songs and twenty-one minutes, Mourn don’t only demand attention, they absolutely command it. This is the first record in recent memory whose very first sound is an uneasy vocal take; to make things even better, only a dim, clean guitar backs the voice. Within thirty seconds of this opener, “Your Brain Is Made of Candy”, the full band instrumentation, unnerving vocal harmonies and dissonantly flickering guitar leads in tow, shoots forward, turning heads more rapidly than a tornado. This combination of minimalism and musical vice-grip continues across the entirety of Mourn, a clamoring post-punk journey that’s impossible to be torn away from while it lasts, but one that ends far too soon.